Critical Response

Yes, TNR, There Really is an American Jewish Cocoon

12.04.13 3:50 PM ET

I’m not sure why—three months after my latest New York Review of Books essay came out—my old magazine, The New Republic, this week published a former Israeli government official attacking it. But they have my thanks.

In the first paragraph of his critique, Shany Mor accuses me of calling the American Jewish community a “‘closed intellectual space’, where voices not entirely supportive of hawkish Israeli policies are simply not heard.” Really? What I actually wrote was that the organized American Jewish community is a “closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control.” That’s entirely different. Obviously, the organized American Jewish community hears “voices not entirely supportive of hawkish Israeli policies.” Thomas Friedman has no problem speaking to Jewish groups. My essay was about the Jewish establishment’s unwillingness to open itself to Palestinian voices. Mor’s paraphrase is blatantly false. And we’re only in the first paragraph.

From there, Mor accuses me of never defining a standard of openness against which the organized American Jewish community should be judged. Perhaps, he suggests, I should have “invent[ed] some epistemic standard of what an open intellectual space should aspire to be.” Actually, my standard was less pretentious: Is it good for the Jews? “Even from the perspective of narrow Jewish and Zionist self-interest,” I write, isolating your constituents from Palestinian experiences and perspectives is “folly.” It not only makes it harder for American Jews to feel empathy for Palestinians; it makes it harder for them to effectively “defend Israel’s legitimacy” because they “don’t even understand the arguments against it.”

Mor, however, denies that the organized American Jewish community is significantly closed to Palestinians at all. “Beinart’s first bit of evidence for the closed intellectual space that is not purely anecdotal,” he scoffs, “is Hillel campus guidelines.” Uh, no. Before mentioning Hillel, I first referenced the near-absence of Palestinian speakers at AIPAC’s 2013 Policy Conference, their total absence from the American Jewish Committee’s 2013 Global Forum and Birthright’s refusal to take young Diaspora Jews to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. What’s “purely anecdotal” about that?

When it comes to Hillel’s guidelines, Mor doesn’t deny my claim that they are so vague as to potentially “bar virtually any Palestinian (or, for that matter, non-Palestinian) critic of Israeli policy.” But he says the guidelines are irrelevant because, in reality, Hillel’s are quite open. In response to my suggestion that Palestinian citizens of Israel serving in the Knesset might not be allowed to speak at Hillel events because they don’t support defining Israel as a Jewish state, Mor asks, “Can anyone imagine a member of Knesset being turned away from a Hillel?” Actually, yes. Just last month, students at Harvard were barred from hosting a speech at Hillel by former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg because he has questioned whether Israel should remain a Jewish state. And Burg is an Orthodox Jew from a distinguished Israeli political family.

If Mor really can’t “imagine” a Hillel chapter barring a Palestinian Israeli parliamentarian like Ahmad Tibi from speaking, it just shows how little he understands the realities of organized American Jewish life. A few examples. In 2010, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was denied the right to bring a Palestinian academic from Bethlehem to speak about water issues after the local Hillel director demanded to know whether the talk would include “any pro-Israel points.”  Last year at SUNY-Binghamton, a student was forced to resign his position at Hillel merely for hosting a pro-BDS, anti-Jewish state Palestinian speaker at a completely different venue.  And these are only the incidents that make the press. Most never do, since efforts to bring Palestinian speakers to Hillel—or other Jewish spaces—are quashed before they ever get off the ground. When I asked a member of the clergy at a major Manhattan synagogue earlier this year about bringing a Palestinian speaker, any Palestinian speaker, I was met with a Talmudic reference about the importance of not rushing into things.

Not once in his entire critique, in fact, does Mor dispute the accuracy of my evidence. Instead, he repeatedly declares that the evidence doesn’t matter. “What is the point of this datum?” he asks about the survey I cite showing that American Jews mostly don’t know that Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens generally attend separate schools. The point is that American Jews lack basic information about the nature of Palestinian life, even within the green line, something greater exposure to Palestinians might help remedy.

“What does this show?” he asks about the poll showing that very few American Jews have heard of key Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It shows that, because of their isolation from Palestinians, many American Jews don’t understand that Jerusalem—a city American Jewish leaders often insist Israel must fully control—includes neighborhoods with barely any Jews.

In response to my assertion that Elie Wiesel falsely claimed that in Jerusalem, “Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines,” Mor accuses me of not understanding the Israeli security requirements that justify excluding most West Bank Palestinian men from entering Jerusalem most of the time. I’m less convinced than he is by the security rationale, but it’s an arguable point. What’s not arguable is that Wiesel’s claim is empirically false, and reflects a striking ignorance of Palestinian lived experience.

Again and again, Mor responds to my evidence that Americans Jews don’t know basic facts about Palestinian life by indignantly asking why anyone should care, since the purpose of seeking such knowledge must be to defame the Jewish state. Indeed, Mor is convinced that the only reason I’m concerned about American Jewish insularity is because I blame Israel for everything and the Palestinians for nothing. In my essay, he writes, “there is absolutely no expectation of any self-criticism or reflection by Palestinians or Arabs or their supporters.”

Unfortunately for Mor, my essay is still available online.  It notes that, “Palestinian schools and media do traffic in anti-Semitism and promote violence.” It declares that, “Palestinian anger…does not justify the grotesque attacks on Israeli civilians committed by Hamas and other terrorist groups.” It says the Palestinian-led movement to boycott, divest from, or sanction all of Israel “is based on a dangerous and inaccurate analogy between Israel and South Africa” and that the movement houses “anti-Semites.” It notes that, “Israel is often judged by an unfair double standard” and calls the refusal by some Palestinians to meet with Israelis or Diaspora Jews “perverse.” That’s an awful lot for Mor to ignore. But he does.

Finally, Mor insists that the real insularity exists not on the American Jewish, but on the Palestinian side. It’s absolutely true that Palestinian activists should be more open to talking to Zionists. I say so in my essay. In fact, one of the reasons for encouraging American Jews to meet Palestinians is that it gives Palestinians an opportunity to meet them. If Birthright took American Jewish kids to meet West Bank Palestinians (something Mor says is impossible on security grounds even though groups like Encounter do it all the time), it wouldn’t only be the American Jews who grew in understanding and empathy, it would be the Palestinians too.

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But Mor doesn’t just say that Palestinians should be more open to talking to Zionists. He says Palestinian self-criticism does not exist. “I am struck,” he declares, “by the total absence in the pro-Palestinian discourse of even a minority view that diverges from the tale of pure victimhood.”

Really? How do these quotes strike him? 1) “It was our mistake, it was an Arab mistake as a whole,” to reject the 1947 partition plan. 2) “Our story is a story of failed leadership from way early on.” 3) “Palestinian problems are caused, in the first instance, by Palestinians.” 4) “Mahmoud Abbas has been channeling the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea and stepped up efforts to quash dissent among the fed up Palestinian people.” The first is from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011.  The second is from former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad this spring.  The third is from Rashid Khalidi, probably the most distinguished living Palestinian historian, in late 2011. The fourth is from Palestinian-American writer Maysoon Zayid, on our Open Zion blog, this week. Mor should check it out. We publish this kind of thing all the time.

Even if there really were a “total absence” in Palestinian discourse of anything that “diverges from the tale of pure victimhood,” it still wouldn’t justify the American Jewish mainstream’s self-defeating refusal to educate American Jews about the Palestinian experience. But what’s revealing is Mor’s willingness to offer, without any evidence, vast and easily disproven generalizations about what Palestinians think. In their condescension and ignorance, such statements perfectly illustrate the problem that my New York Review essay tried to document. For that, he and TNR have my gratitude.